David Stein-leather
September 27, 2013 | by Leatherati
How to Do the Right Kinky Thing- Ethical Principles for BDSM

by David Stein

The ethical principles offered here are neither esoteric nor theoretical. They’re based in our common experiences of BDSM play and of human relationships, both kinky and more ordinary ones. Many will seem familiar, even obvious, but they can still be challenging to live by or to apply consistently. In a recent workshop I led on this material, a participant suggested that what it all boils down to is, “Don’t be a jerk.” Since the opposite of a jerk is someone who’s as sensitive to the needs and desires of others as to his own, that seems like a pretty good starting point for trying to live ethically. Consider the following, then, as a guide to not being a jerk when it comes to BDSM.

The first three entries are meta principles, meaning that they set the terms of the discussion, and the fourth is a master principle that underlies the rest. Kinky folk tend to bristle at being told what to do by anyone whose authority they haven’t explicitly accepted. No such authority is being claimed here. I’m not asking you to take anything on faith. If you want to do the right thing in the kinky parts of your life, and if the meta principles and master principle make sense to you, then you should find the remaining principles here helpful. More could be added — this isn’t a complete list, but it’s a start.

Meta principle #1: Living ethically is a continual challenge. You can’t become ethical once and for all — you’ll always face new situations with new choices, including some hard ones you might not be ready for. The human need to make choices and judgments in order to live is in continual tension with our limitations as merely human beings. Each of us has a unique but limited perspective, which tends to color our judgments, and none of us can know all the consequences of our choices in advance. Even the most well-considered decision can turn out wrong, but you still have to pick one option rather than another, and choosing thoughtlessly isn’t likely to produce better results — nor is refusing to choose, which is the same as choosing the option of least resistance.

Morality and ethics overlap a great deal, and the terms are often used as synonyms. But it can be helpful to think of morality (from Latin mores, or customs) as more about obeying tribal, social, or religious rules, and of ethics (from Greek ethos, or character) as more about making the right choices — including deciding which rules, if any, to follow. On this view, ethics necessarily embraces both intentions and results: behaving ethically means doing your best to obtain a good result for everyone with a stake in your actions. Yes, well-intentioned folks may disagree about what would be a good result in a given situation, and sometimes all the options are more or less bad. Those facts of life are also consequences of our being human and imperfect. They don’t change the principle that doing the right thing means aiming at a good result for all concerned — and being willing to change course as you learn more about the situation.

Meta principle #2: Forget about SSC and RACK. Neither “safe sane consensual” (SSC) nor “risk-aware consensual kink” (RACK) is an ethical principle; they’re well-intentioned slogans that can at best remind us of some issues we need to think about in order to make good choices in BDSM. At worst, they promote complacency without providing any useful guidance. Nothing is absolutely safe — you’re playing the odds even crossing the street — and simply being aware of risks doesn’t help you decide if they’re worth taking. “Sane” is also a relative term, and while it’s vital to be in touch with reality and free of delusions, judgments of sanity are too often used as a tool to enforce conformity. Consensuality, as we’ll see just below, is no solution to ethical dilemmas: instead, it raises a host of issues in BDSM, where so much depends on trust rather than explicit consent. We need to move beyond these slogans.

Meta principle #3: Consent alone is not enough. Many folks, in despair of ever reaching agreement about what’s good and bad or right and wrong, have suggested that all we really need is mutual consent. Their view is that absolutely anything adults consent to do with or to each other is okay and nobody’s business but their own. But consent is a surprisingly tricky criterion: How explicit does it have to be? Must it be renewed each moment, or can you consent in advance to give up your right to withdraw consent (“consensual non-consent”)? Are some people unable to give consent, like children or the mentally infirm? Who decides, and on what basis? Sometimes people give blanket consent to those they trust to make decisions for them, and sometimes that trust is betrayed. Does that mean such trust is never warranted? Or that anything goes once your victim has signed away her or his rights? People sometimes consent to behavior that harms themselves or others, or that leads to results they regret for a long time. Is it really okay to harm people who say they want to be harmed? Enabling someone’s self-destructive impulses isn’t exactly aiming at a good result!

Master principle: First, do no harm to oneself or others. People engage in BDSM because it gives them pleasure or makes them happy, so why elevate avoiding harm to the status of a master ethical principle, especially given that SM often involves hurting someone? Because hurt and harm are different: hurt is temporary, but harm is lasting — whether it’s physical, like loss of a limb or function; psychological, like PTSD or reduced self-esteem; or spiritual, such as despair. What makes avoiding harm suitable as the master principle for BDSM (though not of all ethics) is precisely that it doesn’t prescribe what people should find pleasurable or conducive to their happiness. Whatever your turn-ons and sources of satisfaction — and everyone’s are different — harm is lasting damage that diminishes your ability to enjoy life or pursue happiness. In other words, the principle of avoiding harm helps us decide how far is too far to go with a clean conscience in BDSM play or relationships.

Does this mean that things like degradation, objectification, or dehumanization have no place in ethical BDSM? Not necessarily: making someone physically, mentally, or spiritually less than before can be okay — and may even, paradoxically, empower the “victim” — when it’s a temporary, reversible effect. What’s wrong is to diminish someone permanently. So there’s ample room for ethical puppy play or for scenes where a person is used as a seat, table, or toy, but fantasies of permanently converting a human into an animal or an object ought to remain fantasies only, not plans for action.

Be honest. Dishonesty undermines both trust and consent, so don’t tell lies or be complicit in lies by others, withhold no necessary information, and never promise what you can’t deliver. Acknowledged role-playing and fantasies aside, don’t pretend to be something or someone you’re not. Eventually, you’ll be found out, and your partner’s disappointment might be the least of the problems that result. Also, we humans have an immense capacity for self-deception, so be honest with yourself: don’t believe your own hype or rationalizations.

Avoid unintentional pain. The whole point of SM is for the pain or suffering to be intentional and meaningful, resulting from deliberate choices that connect the one hurting with the one who hurts, instead of random or mindless as in ordinary life. Causing someone pain without meaning to suggests carelessness or indifference, while assuming that suffering is your particular lot in life may reflect an unhealthy victim mentality. Ethical sadism and mastery start with control of the sadist or dominant’s own behavior so that it doesn’t lead to unintended suffering. But bottoms, submissives, and slaves need self-control, too, because they can inflict unintended emotional pain on their BDSM partners by acting — or speaking! — without forethought.

Respect limits. Everyone has limits: these are either things you can’t do because of physical or mental limitations, or that you won’t do because you prefer not to or believe it would be wrong. With patient effort, both kinds of limits can be extended, but the safer and more ethical course may be to accept them as they are. For most kinksters, it’s fairly straightforward to discern their own limits and preferences, to make these clear to potential partners, and to respect whatever limits those partners may have. However, what some bottoms, subs, or slaves want is precisely to let someone else determine their limits, and some tops and dominants enjoy taking on that additional responsibility. This doesn’t mean those limits no longer exist or can be ignored, only that all of the responsibility for avoiding harm has consensually shifted onto one partner rather than being shared by both.

People often speak confusingly of a “no limits” scene or relationship when what is meant is that the bottom/sub/slave gives the person in charge permission in advance to ignore protests and do whatever she or he wants (consensual non-consent). That’s a huge risk, but it may be a reasonable one if those involved know each other well and have a strong basis of trust. In rare cases people say they have “no limits” because they don’t care if they’re harmed or even want to be. An ethical top or dominant will decline to play with such people and refer them for trained psychological therapy.

Take responsibility for your own risks. Don’t leave all risk management up to the folks you play with. All those participating in a BDSM scene or relationship not only need to inform themselves about the risks in whatever they’re going to do but should also do their part to reduce or eliminate any that are unnecessary. Taking needless risks may excite you, but in the end the cost could be more than you — and those who care about you — are prepared to pay.

Right is better than “right now.” Don’t push anyone into scenes or relationships they’re not ready for — or let anyone pressure you when you’re not ready. Even with good intentions, rushing things may end in an injury, a scandal, or at least resentment. Don’t be afraid to respond to an invitation to play with “Thank you, no” or “Not now.” As you gain experience, learn to listen to your gut the right way — not to the part that screams, “I want this!” but to the one that whispers, “No, there’s something wrong here” or “Yes, this is right for me.”

Don’t mess with anyone’s livelihood or family. Unless folks explicitly invite you into these parts of their lives, assume they’re off limits. As a top or dominant, you should do nothing that might threaten a BDSM partner’s job or family relations — like shaving the head or eyebrows, permanent piercings or tattoos, keeping someone out of work or away from family members, or posting explicit photos online — unless you know in advance that it’s okay. By the same token, a bottom, sub, or slave should never encroach on a top or dominant’s private space, like calling a phone number you’re not authorized to use or interacting with his/her work colleagues or family members without being introduced.

Aim to end a scene or relationship with no regrets. Ideally, a play session should be satisfying enough, even if there’s pain that lingers for a while, that everyone involved will want to do it again sometime. But even if you never want to repeat a particular experience, it should still feel good to have done it — because you learned something, pleased your partner, proved your mettle, or something else positive. And that “no regrets” feeling should persist over time; if not, something may have been wrong about the experience that wasn’t clear earlier. Ideally, BDSM relationships should also end without regrets, which is often harder to achieve but even more important.

Honorably finish what you start. If you can’t continue a scene, don’t just walk away. Provide closure for your partner(s) and yourself by explaining why you have to stop and whether you’re willing to try again at a later time. The same goes for ending relationships: just because sex may be involved, or practices that mainstream society frowns upon, is no reason to enter or exit a BDSM relationship frivolously or without careful thought and attention to the needs and feelings of everyone concerned.

Starting and ending D/s or M/s relationships raise special issues. For instance, don’t begin training a sub, slave, dogboy, ponygirl, or whatever without realistic, transparent goals. “Training” that continues indefinitely at the whim of the trainer tends to be exploitative. On the other side, don’t submit to a training regimen or commit to provide obedient service without doing your best to fulfill your part of the bargain. Typically, while the subordinate party may request to be released from service, it is up to the dominant whether to grant the request. But there’d better be a good reason for refusing, such as a sincere determination to resolve whatever problems led to the request — a dominant who persists in refusing to release a sub or slave who wants out can get into big trouble! While there may be no legal consequences for a sub, boy, or slave who quits without being released, unless there’s been abuse by the dominant quitting is considered dishonorable and may damage your reputation in the community.

D/s and M/s “contracts” are not legally enforceable, but other agreements between the parties may be, such as those pertaining to ownership of a business or dwelling. Nonetheless, people do change over time, so some agreements include provisions for honorable release if either party comes to find the terms intolerable. In contrast, an “Owner/property” (O/p) relationship typically has the explicit premise that, once committed, the property will not be allowed to leave. While that’s illegal almost everywhere, it may be ethical if that’s how the “property” wants to live and she or he is clearly none the worse for it. As with other ethical hard calls in BDSM, to judge an O/p relationship fairly — assuming it’s any of your business in the first place — you have to examine both intentions and results.

Don’t use BDSM as a mask for therapy. A play or training session can bring up deep issues and may have a therapeutic effect, but unless you discuss this possibility with your partners ahead of time, and they’re okay with it, keep your personal shit out of the dungeon. Don’t trick or trap someone into serving unwittingly as your therapist — and that goes equally whether the person is going to be top or bottom, dominant or submissive. While we all have a right to seek whatever healing we need, whether through BDSM or otherwise, none of us wants to feel, afterward, that we were just being used to work out someone else’s issues. And if you know you have specific psychic trigger points, help your partners avoid them.

Respect everyone. Even when we’re puppies or ponies, masters or goddesses, slaves or toys, kinksters are still people. No one is invulnerable, unfeeling, or unworthy of at least initial respect. Not everyone is turned on, or off, by the same things or to the same degree, and that’s okay. Not everyone does things the same, and that’s okay, too. There’s more than one way to swing a cat, to process pain, to wrap a mummy, to train a slave, to serve a mistress, to scare an adrenaline junkie out of his skin, or to bring the biggest smile ever to a hard-working top’s face. Be very grateful if you can master one of these ways, and don’t put down anyone who takes a different route to the same goal.

Never take your partners for granted. Depend on them, lean on them as needed and appropriate, but never forget that their presence in your life is a grace, not an entitlement, nor even a quid pro quo. This is true whether you’re a top, bottom, or switch, a master or slave, a dom or sub, a pet or trainer, and so on. Having a partner you can count on — whether for a scene, a lifetime, or any period in between — is an incalculable gift. Don’t devalue it by taking him or her for granted.

Aim at excellence. Doing the right thing means doing the best you can in whatever situation you find yourself. If you don’t have an idea of what would be the best outcome, how can you choose among your different options? Whatever your roles, whichever techniques you use, learn all you can and aim to perform at the highest level you’re capable of reaching. Even when you’re just having fun, you’ll have more fun, and more satisfaction when you finish, if you play your heart out than if you merely go through the motions — and so will your partners. Slapdash technique or halfhearted commitment decrease the chances of a deep connection between you. Superficial BDSM, like superficial sex, isn’t wrong, but it’s often not worth the effort. Good play can be casual or spontaneous, but only with a solid foundation of skill, empathy, and desire. If you don’t do the prep work, you can’t reap the highest rewards. Lots of practice won’t make you perfect, because no one is, but it will help you become the best you can be, and you’ll have a great time along the way.

Treat others at least as well as yourself. The Golden Rule — “Treat others as you would like to be treated” — is a great ethical principle, but for use in BDSM, where we typically desire a distinct inequality of power or status, it needs a qualification: “Treat others as you would like to be treated if you were them.” So if you’re flogging a pain pig, the right thing to do is not to hold back but to provide the most challenging session you’re both up for. If you’re a slave, the right way to treat your master is not “like yourself” but how you’d want a slave to treat you if you carried the same weight of responsibility. And so on.

Another fine principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” also needs modifying. It’s a bad maxim if you don’t love yourself! Plenty of hard-driving, Type A personalities — on both sides of the slash marks — treat others badly because they so often shortchange themselves for all kinds of reasons. Aim at a higher standard and treat others the way you’d treat yourself . . . if you had time for it . . . if you weren’t feeling guilty . . . if you didn’t have all these deadlines . . . if you didn’t have higher priorities . . . if you weren’t ashamed of your kinky desires . . . or whatever excuses you use. You and your BDSM partners will both be better for it!

The earliest version of these principles dates back to a workshop at the April 2005 Leather Leadership Conference in Phoenix, AZ. This one is an extensive revision of my handout for a workshop at the May 2013 Northwest Leather Celebration in San Jose, CA. You may reprint these pages or post them online without charge or permission, but please don’t strip out my byline! Anyone, however, may adapt and build on this starting point. I welcome feedback; e-mail davidsteinnyc@gmail.com.

 

Bio

Activist, writer, educator, and publisher David Stein has been heavily involved in the gay leather/SM world, mainly but not exclusively as a bottom or slave, since the late 1970s. In 1980 he co-founded and for the next 11 years helped lead NYC’s Gay Male S/M Activists, or GMSMA, which became one of the largest and most influential kink organizations in the world (it lost focus and disbanded in 2009). He coined “safe, sane, and consensual” for that group’s statement of purpose in 1983, hoping it would help spark serious discussion about SM ethics, but has deep reservations about how the phrase has since come to be used.

Over the years David has presented or keynoted at many important leather events, including three Leather Leadership Conferences and nine Master/slave Conferences. For six years he wrote the safety column for Bound & Gagged magazine, and in 1997 he guest-edited a unique issue of International Leatherman magazine (#14) devoted entirely to real-life gay Masters and slaves. In 2009 he wrote and published the award-winning book Ask the Man Who Owns Him on the same subject for his own Perfectbound Press imprint.

Perfectbound has also published a book of his erotic stories, Boots, Bondage, and Beatings, story collections by Thom Magister (The Slave Journals) and Christopher Pierce (Winner Takes All), and, most recently, Magister’s Biker Bar, which takes a playful look at the origins of the leather bar. In 2014 Perfectbound Press will release a revised edition of David’s epic-length Master/slave novel, Carried Away, published in 2002 by Daedalus, in both paper and digital versions.

 
1 Comment
  • Consent is, in particular, close to my heart. Its just so damned important. Not just a basic agreement, or ‘we’ve got a safeword so everything’s OK unless you use it, right?’, but considered, informed consent that can be taken back! Great article, thanks.

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